Guidelines for Handling Convenience Foods

1. Handle with the same care you give fresh, raw ingredients.

Most loss of quality in convenience foods comes from assuming they are damage-proof and can be treated haphazardly.

2. Examine as soon as received.

Particularly, check frozen foods—with a thermometer—to make sure they have not thawed in transit. Put away at once.

3. Store properly.

Frozen foods must be held at 0°F (-18°C) or lower. Check your freezer with a thermometer regularly. Refrigerated foods must stay chilled, below 41°F (5°C), to slow spoilage. Shelf-stable foods (dry products, canned goods, etc.) are shelf-stable only when stored properly, in a cool, dry place, tightly sealed.

4. Know the shelf life of each product.

Nothing will keep forever, not even convenience foods. (Some, like peeled potatoes, are even more perishable than unprocessed ingredients.) Rotate stock according to the first in, first out principle. And don't stock more than necessary.

5. Defrost frozen foods properly.

Ideally, defrost in a tempering box set at 28°F to 30°F (-2°C to -1°C) or, lacking that, in the refrigerator at 41°F (5°C) or lower. This takes advance planning and timing, because large items take several days to thaw.

If you are short of time, the second-best way to defrost foods is under cold, running water, in the original wrapper.

Never defrost at room temperature or in warm water. The high temperatures encourage bacterial growth and spoilage.

Do not refreeze thawed foods. Quality will greatly deteriorate.

Certain foods, like frozen French fries and some individual-portion prepared entrées, are designed to be cooked without thawing.

6. Know how and to what extent the product has been prepared.

Partially cooked foods need less heating in final preparation than do raw foods. Some cooks prepare frozen, cooked crab legs, for example, as though they were raw, but by the time the customer receives them, they are overcooked, dry, and tasteless. Frozen vegetables, for a second example, have been blanched and often need only to be heated briefly.

Manufacturers are happy to give full directions and serving suggestions for their products. At least you should read the package directions.

7. Use proper cooking methods.

Be flexible. Much modern equipment has been designed especially for convenience foods. Don't restrict yourself to conventional ranges and ovens if compartment steamers, convection ovens, or microwave ovens might do a better job more efficiently.

8. Treat convenience foods as though you, not the manufacturer, did the pre-preparation.

Make the most of your opportunity to use creativity and to serve the best quality you can. Your final preparation, plating, and garnish should be as careful as though you made it from scratch.

In general, the more completely a product has been prepared by the manufacturer, the less it will reflect the individuality of the food service operator—and the less opportunity the cooks have to give it their own character and quality.

Is a stock made from scratch better than a product made from a convenience base? Most quality-conscious chefs would probably answer "Yes!" But the correct answer is,"Not if the homemade stock is poorly made." No matter what products you use, there is no substitute for quality and care.The fresh product is potentially the best,but not if it is badly stored or handled. Convenience foods also need proper handling to maintain their quality.

The key to understanding and handling convenience foods is considering them as normal products with part of the pre-prep completed rather than as totally different kinds of products unlike your normal raw materials. Convenience products are not a substitute for culinary knowledge and skill. They should be a tool for the good cook rather than a crutch for the bad cook. It takes as much understanding of basic cooking principles to handle convenience products as it does fresh, raw ingredients, particularly if you want the convenience product to taste as much like the fresh as possible.

■ TERMS FOR REVIEW

mise en place holding temperatures set meal service extended meal service chop concasser mince emincer shred rondelle small dice medium dice large dice brunoise batonnet allumette julienne paysanne parisienne noisette cocotte château chiffonade blanch marinate

Standard Breading

Procedure panko batter convenience food

■ QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1. How does preparation differ for set meal service and extended meal service?

2. It has been said that a la carte cooking, or cooking to order, is nothing more than small-batch cooking carried to its extreme. Based on what you know about pre-preparation, what do you think this statement means?

3. Why is it important to learn to cut foods accurately and uniformly?

4. Name six basic vegetable cuts and give their dimensions.

5. Give six examples of foods that might be blanched or parcooked during pre-preparation, and give a reason for each.

6. Describe in detail how to set up a breading station and how to use it to bread veal cutlets.

7. The manager of the restaurant in which you are a cook has decided to try using frozen, breaded shrimp instead of having you bread shrimp by hand, but she is worried about customer acceptance and asks for your help. How will you handle the new product?

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